Home Life Shades of grey: navigating political differences in a polarised world

Shades of grey: navigating political differences in a polarised world

by Ellie Hopgood

I like to think of myself as a non-judgmental person. I have plenty of flaws of my own, but being harsh about people’s choices tends not to be one of them. I appreciate that life is complicated, as are emotions, and I try to put people’s decisions in the context of their life experiences, rather than my own. Just because I like to eat or love or work or spend money a certain way truly does not mean that I have an expectation that other people should do the same. But these are challenging, divisive times, and it often goes beyond smaller choices, or those small choices become laced with powerful moral consequences.

Over the past few years, I have felt myself developing harder boundaries. While I may have tolerated more differences of opinion in the past, I find it harder and harder to see people who hold certain views as ultimately decent. But then I start tangling myself up in whether or not I’m a good person, because there are certainly things that I do that other people might disagree with or think to be bad. 

This classification of people as either morally good or morally bad is part of the problem, as if morality could ever be a binary state. I know a few people who seem to put other humans into boxes this way, where people get to be in the good box until they do something disagreeable, at which point they are thrust into the bad box and forever seen to be terrible or hurtful or unprogressive in some way. It has never been in my nature to see people as anything other than shades of grey and I do find it difficult when I encounter people who act like good and bad are merely two states between which to flick. Politics has become intimately intertwined with morality and that imbues voting choices and social opinions with a lot more meaning than before.

But the truth is that we are in a polarising political climate, and I find it harder and harder to see the nuance amongst various incidents of bigotry and prejudice. I have met people who are passionate Brexit supporters and Tory voters, who believe that poverty is a personal failing and that personal success is all about how hard you work (the fact that they have wealthy parents has nothing to do with it, of course). I know people who make jokes I wouldn’t make, or who use terms I’m not comfortable with, or who hold opinions I just don’t agree with about relationships, gender roles, racism, privilege and other fraught social justice topics. I mean, we just saw two horrific mass shootings within twelve hours of each other in the US – in the wake of such horror and hate, how can you not see someone more negatively if they continue to be ardently pro-gun, especially given the undeniable link with white supremacy and racism?

In these instances, I tend to say something, but to really go all in would be to damage that relationship badly, as I’d essentially be saying “I don’t think good people hold opinions like this – and, therefore, I don’t think you’re a good person.” Everyone likes to think they’re the good guy, and no one wants to be friends with people who tell them in no uncertain terms that they think they’re a bad person.

I am up for a good debate, don’t get me wrong. The question is not whether I can tolerate discussions or disagreements about my views, but whether I want to form a friendship or deepen a bond after these conversations happen (or how to proceed if you are already friends). I don’t want to end up with cookie cutter friendships, where we all blindly agree with each other and sit in rooms reinforcing each other’s opinions without a hint of challenge. I have a few friendships that are risk of becoming like that and I know I feel on edge sometimes, because as soon as the hint of a disagreeing opinion comes up – even about the most innocuous of things, like whether a book or movie was any good – tension rises a little, because tolerance of differing views is not part of these relationships.

The real truth is that I don’t always mind if someone holds an opinion I strongly disagree with, which I am sometimes made to feel bad about by people to whom judgment comes easier. As I will probably say a thousand times in this blog post, it doesn’t mean I agree, but I can let the knowledge that someone I know thinks something I disagree with wash over me without having a strong response. Yes, I am super, super liberal, but I grew up in a family where both my parents were feminists, my mum ran a company, my dad taught international politics (I mean, they still do both of these things), we read books every day, we travelled and we talked about sexism and racism and inequality and psychology and empathy on a regular basis. Of course I am extremely left-leaning. It would be odd if I wasn’t. If anything, this upbringing has given me some pretty radical views on domestic gender roles and the responsibilities of privileged families to be generous with their communities. But I understand that if I had been raised in a different environment, one that had a more traditional gender dynamic or had involved my parents sharing conservative opinions with me, or, you know, didn’t include a father who gave me books on ethics and political philosophy when I was fourteen and asking some big questions, everything would be different. So I can’t have an expectation that everyone will respond to the world like I do, because people don’t live in the exact same world that I do. Their experiences have been different and that can change everything.

For example, my house growing up was very body and weight positive. We never had a set of scales, my parents did not have issues with food or weight or their own bodies, we ate in a very relaxed way, which was often healthy, nutritious food but also included biscuits and takeaways and hot chocolates on a fairly regular basis. We did things outside, but we also sat and watched movies. It was very… balanced. And this has made me a very balanced adult when it comes to food and my own body. But I know plenty of people who had different experiences, if not in their upbringing then at school or with friends or with hobbies and sports. I now know people who are at all different points on the food, weight and body image spectrum. If I expected my friends who grew up in households where weight, diet and body image were fraught subjects to never have issues with food or their own body (or the bodies and choices of others, which is when it gets political), it would be unhelpful and shortsighted. Yes, it seems obvious to me to eat or exercise or treat myself a certain way, but if I levied that judgment on others and acted like they should just snap out of it, it would be hurtful, or at the very least, tone-deaf to their life and experiences. If I don’t agree with their way of thinking, it seems like the most productive way to approach it is, “I understand why you feel like that. Can I offer a different perspective?” I feel like acting with compassion tends to be the right way to go, especially with people you care about and relationships you want to preserve.

I do feel it can be helpful to try to draw a line between the ‘big stuff’ and the smaller, more niche elements of certain issues. That women are people who deserve respect? Yeah, that’s non-negotiable for me, as is believing that people of all races and genders and sexualities and abilities deserve care and respect. But those big things break down into smaller points of discussion, and the line starts to be a little blurrier. If you are kind to women, treat them with respect and believe that they deserve autonomy and success just like men do, but you also want your partner to shave their legs and pubic region because you think it’s sexier, where does that fall? I don’t agree with that, but I wouldn’t end a friendship over it. I had two friends getting a little tense about the role of corporations at Pride recently, and I wondered whether they were entering into this discussion from the place of ‘I know we are both dedicated allies to the LGBTQ+ community and we are having a discussion about an issue that has no ‘obvious’ progressive or right answer’ or if this opinion was being considered a proxy by the other of whether this person was an ally at all, as if either one of them was really at liberty to make that distinction.

There’s also the conflict of trying to be an ally to communities to which you don’t belong but not wanting to immediately condemn the people you know for their opinions. It feels more urgent for me to speak up (and I do) when I hear people saying things I think are prejudiced about people who aren’t white, or straight, or cisgender, or middle class. But I worry that it reflects poorly on me to continue relationships with people who hold a view I think is hurtful, even if I discuss it with them and we see eye to eye on most other things. But for me to condemn them wholly, it would require me to think that my moral compass should be everyone’s moral compass, which I don’t think is true or a helpful way to relate to other people. In fact, I think it’s actively childish and shortsighted – especially because, in most of these instances, it’s not the case that two people diverge on every major opinion, political or otherwise (those people are probably not friends). It’s two people who agree on many things, but disagree on a single point, and find themselves stuck. Most issues have no ‘right’ answer and are not clear-cut. Who gets to decide what the right opinions are?

There’s a lot for me to untangle here. There’s the question of how to relate to people who hold opinions you think are fundamentally wrong – like believing it’s wrong to be gay or that women ask to get raped or that police are just doing their jobs when they kill unarmed black people. Yeah, I’m not close friends with anyone who believes this stuff to be true. But if I don’t engage with people who disagree with me, where does that leave us? If I can’t find any shared experience or see any humanity in people with different political sensibilities, what does that suggest about our options going forward? What if it’s not the big, overarching opinions but smaller stuff, about who should pay on first dates or if it’s unconstitutional for us to hold a second referendum? And what about people who think of opinions on every small issue as an inherent proxy for wider values? Is it possible to not condone an opinion or belief but still say that you still think the person that holds it is a decent person regardless? What do you do with people who think that being good or bad is a binary state, and refuse to see anything in between?

These are tough times, full of hate and division and urgent political questions. It feels wrong to give time to people that believe that the recent mass shootings are the result of anything other than racism, white supremacy and hatred, or to give time to any solution that doesn’t involve the banning of guns (which works to avoid mass shootings in every other developed nation on the planet). But the outlook is bleaker if we believe that people are irredeemable. As shocking and scary as it might be, there are millions of people who disagree about guns or reproductive rights or even the right to healthcare – but even scarier is the prospect that anyone who holds dissenting, right-wing views is beyond salvaging. Because what else is there? What hope do we have if we see people on the other side of these issues as fundamentally, intrinsically bad, rather than examining the environments that create and nurture those views and trying to use that knowledge to reshape the world? We will be seen as the bad side by those who fall on the other side of the political spectrum – no matter how much we may want to stamp our feet and say “people are dying. We preach tolerance and acceptance and equality and love. What’s wrong with you?” that won’t get us anywhere. Because everyone thinks they are right, even if there are no objective answers. To write off everyone who supports Trump may feel right or easier in the moment, but it leaves the world littered with hate. While no one should be expected to shoulder the burden of educating people who refuse to grant them basic humanity, people who are lucky enough to not be considered less than human by large swathes of the population need to do the work of conversation, debate and education – because creating a better, kinder, more tolerant world will be much further out of reach if we sequester those we disagree with, rationalising them as terrible and awful with no deeper exploration.

You may not face these questions. I know that I have come across people who feel strongly that context and background are not a cause for empathy and excuses when it comes to understanding where someone is coming from. And of course, I draw many of my own lines too, and I have moments where seeing a friend of mine shrug off the (in my opinion) problematic views of their friend or partner gives me pause. But I don’t want to get deeper into that mindset. I want to be able to see everyone as a shade of grey, because it’s not binary. There are not two categories of people: good and bad. This very black and white way of categorising people seems reductive and harmful, especially if you want to change minds and views and make progress. I believe that if you dug down into the influences on people’s lives – where they grew up, what their parents think, the books, movies and TV they watched and read, the place they’ve been and the people they’ve met – that many of their opinions, both large and small, would make sense in the context of their lives, though perhaps not yours. I’m not saying excuse it, I’m not saying you need to put up with it, but it might help us all to understand why certain opinions and beliefs have been left to prosper in certain people, which seems like valuable information to have as we are deciding what to do next and how best to build a better world.

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Helen August 8, 2019 - 11:31 am

A great, nuanced piece. It is so important to keep talking and to be kind, even to those with different views. There are times where people go too far and there is no scope for continued dialogue, but I think we have to assume the best, not the worst, of people.

Ellie Hopgood August 8, 2019 - 12:41 pm

Agreed. Given how much division there is, to give up on productive dialogue is to give up hope.


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